Gary Shteyngart thinks it might be time to buy a desk. Not as a reward for finally completing his super sad, super funny third novel. Not because he’s just been named to the New Yorker’s list of the 20 best fiction writers under the age of 40.
And not because he will soon move from his one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to more spacious digs elsewhere in downtown Manhattan. No, it turns out that Gary Shteyngart needs a desk because he has a back problem.
“I write in bed,” Shteyngart explains during a call to his soon-to-be-abandoned apartment near the Williamsburg Bridge. “Wherever I go, I always write in bed. I began this novel in New York. Then I went to the American Academy in Berlin, which is in this horrible suburb outside Berlin, and everything I wrote there had to be trashed. Then I went back to New York and worked on it some more. But it wasn’t until I got a fellowship in Umbria that I really solved all my [novel’s] problems so that in a month and a half the book was done. My posture was so bad that I was in the ER with some back problems. I think it’s time to buy a desk.”
Adventures in a near-future America where reading is outmoded and everyone gets instant ratings for personality and sex appeal.
An exaggeration? Fans of Shteyngart’s wildly exuberant novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002) and Absurdistan (2006), would not be surprised—or necessarily disappointed—if it were. The outsized characters (Misha of Absurdistan is the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia and weighs 325 pounds) and outsized events (Vladimir, the hero of Russian Debutante’s Handbook, concocts a hilariously improbable Ponzi scheme for the Russian mafia) show Shteyngart’s unique capacity for comic exaggeration in the service of pointed satire. Why not carry that over into real life?
After all, real-life chaos in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Russia, where Shteyngart was born in 1972, shaped his first two novels. Real-life economic turbulence in the United States, where he and his parents moved in 1979, shapes his third book, Super Sad True Love Story.
“I wanted to write a novel where I took a little baby step away from the Russia theme and began working with America,” Shteyngart says. “The U.S.S.R. fell apart in such a violent, horrible way and that was the place where I was born, but I started to notice that the place where I was living, especially under the Bush administration, was becoming very frightening in and of itself. Some of the same things I remember from the Soviet Union are happening here: the hyper-patriotism, the economic decline. . . . So I started to think about what would happen if things began to really turn bad.”
Set mostly in New York City in the not-too-distant future, Super Sad True Love Story describes a country that is far enough from our own to be very funny but plausible enough to be simultaneously terrifying. It is a country after the collapse, a place dominated by youth culture, where our 39-year-old hero Lenny Abramov, who is both emotionally immature and physically over-the-hill, sells the technology of eternal life to high net worth individuals (HNWI) for the Post-Human Services division of a major multinational corporation. It is a place where the dollar has been supplanted by the Chinese yuan as the world currency. Where the bipartisan American Recovery Authority runs the country. Where everyone has a smart-phone-like äppärät that allows each individual to instantly rate the personality and sexual appeal of everyone else. Where corporate mergers have refined business to its most simplistic expression: Credit, Media and Retail. And where, to add insult to injury, Staten Island is more fashionable than Manhattan. It is, in short, a world where Shteyngart can romp and cavort, deploying his extraordinary gifts for invention.
“The book tries to be a book for our times, and our times move so quickly that there’s almost no present anymore, we’re living in the future all the time,” Shteyngart says. “What I’m trying to do is find a way to talk about it. “
But this is also a super sad love story. So the hapless Lenny pursues a much younger Eunice Park, the fashion-conscious daughter of Korean immigrants and a girl who expresses her every random thought through text messages and email. She is at first resistant to Lenny, then flattered, and then kinda, sorta for a while transformed by him. Throughout his depiction of Eunice, Shteyngart displays a brilliant satirist’s ear for language.
“I’m always trying to listen to the way people talk and the way they write messages and I’m trying to get that clickety-clack,” Shteyngart says “Given that this is the future where nobody can read, I think Eunice’s messages are actually quite beautiful and very introspective. . . . Eunice is a unique character. Despite the fact that she is so modern, she’s really old-fashioned at heart and maybe that’s why she connects with Lenny.”
In fact, Lenny even gets Eunice interested in reading a book. And in that moment lurks Shteyngart’s most radical critique of the future. Early in Super Sad True Love Story, on an airplane home, Lenny opens a book of Chekhov short stories. The young jock sitting next to him, “a senior Credit ape at Land O’LakesGMFord,” says, “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.” Lenny, it seems, is one of the last people on Earth who is still seriously reading fiction.
“I’m not a Luddite,” Shteyngart says. “I’m speaking to you on an iPhone, I have computers lying around. But something terrible is being lost, I think. What that is is empathy for other human beings, which you can get only by entering their minds through something like a novel. As wonderful as film is, it still requires a camera lens. It does not allow you inside the mind of its creator, whereas a book still does. That experience requires a deep train of concentration and that deep train of concentration is what is being slowly chiseled away at by instant gratification forms of media.”
“Reading is now considered non-interactive as compared to, say, video games. But a good piece of fiction has enough stuff missing that it requires the reader to fill in many different emotions and feelings,” Shteyngart says. “The major difference with the new generation is that when you’re playing a video game, you are the hero or the heroine of the game. You are the avatar. You control things. But reading fiction, you give up a little bit of your own identity, your own authority. You meld with something else. And that is scary but exhilarating.”
And that, dear reader of fiction, is also the perfect description for Shteyngart’s new novel: scary but exhilarating.